The Paris Cinema Project

On Saturday night, September 23, 1933, Parisian theatrical impresario Oscar Dufrenne finished dinner in his apartment and returned to his office at the Palace cinema on the rue Faubourg-Montmartre in the ninth arrondissement. Dufrenne owned the Palace, as well as some other entertainment venues in the city. He may have been working late that night because he was in the final stages of closing the Palace as a cinema and reopening it as a legitimate theatre, and he was also working on a new show for his Casino de Paris. He dismissed the staff that was still at the cinema, but a few of them remained, and later, several of them described Dufrenne welcoming a young man—“about 25 years old, tall, thin, with a pale complexion, a strong hooked nose, and dressed in a fancy sailor’s costume,” as L’Action Française reported it. Just after midnight, Dufrenne’s secretary came to the office and found his boss’ body. Dufrenne had been murdered.

The front-page story in Le Quotidien, September 26, 1933, with a photo of Dufrenne, in the circle

Police determined that he had been struck multiple times on the head with a blunt object, but this only served to knock him out. The assailant then placed a mattress over his head and kept it there until Dufrenne had suffocated. Dufrenne’s wallet was missing and so was his wristwatch, but there were no signs of a struggle, and so he had clearly known the man who killed him. This began the “Drame Parisien,” as the newspaper L’Ouest Éclair referred to it, the hunt for the young man in the sailor suit. 

The French newspapers at the time were full of stories about grisly murders. When Le Quotidien ran the story, Dufrenne’s death shared space on the front page with the trial of Violette Nozière, the young woman who had murdered her father, who had been sexually assaulting her since she was a girl. When Le Journal published a story on September 29 about Dufrenne’s secretary, it shared space with yet another trial, this one of the Papin sisters, Christine and Léa, the maids who killed the woman they worked for and also her daughter. But the murder of the man who owned the Palace seemed to equal these other cases in terms of popular interest, in large part because Dufrenne was such a significant part of the Parisian cultural scene, and also because his homosexuality was well known, and his murder could be assumed to be an assignation that had gone terribly wrong.

Oscar Dufrenne, who was 58 when he was murdered, had been born in Lille, and as a young man worked in the rug industry. He came to Paris for a job at a café-concert, and from there worked his way up the entertainment industry until he owned several prominent theatres—including the Mayol and the Empire in addition to the Casino de Paris—along with one cinema, the Palace. He became such a prominent and influential local personality, that at the time of his death he also served as an elected official on the Paris city council, representing the Porte Saint-Denis district in the tenth arrondissement.

The Palace was still fairly new, having opened as a cinema in December, 1931, although it may have been a legitimate theatre before that, with this kind of back and forth not uncommon in Paris at the time. The first film to show there was Walter Ruttman’s documentary about sexually transmitted diseases, L’ennemi dans le sang (Feind im Blut [1931]), which played for more than a month, and for the next few years the Palace showed some new French films (Le Beguin de la garnison [1933] in April 1933, for instance), as well as some films that had opened in Paris a few months before and were starting to fan out to other cinemas (the Franco-Polish L’Ange du mal [1933] in June 1933), and reprises of French films or foreign movies. The last two films to play there, in the weeks before Dufrenne’s death and the Palace’s transition to a theatrical space, were Danish director Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s oblique horror film, Vampyr (1932), followed by a German comedy featuring Lil Dagover, who had a large following in France at the time, Théa, femme moderne (Das Abenteuer der Thea Roland [1932]). The Palace, then, was a significant cinema, but not on the scale of many others, including those nearby in the ninth arrondissement like the Paramount, the Max Linder, and the Olympia. 

A diagram of the murder scene, Le Journal, September 26, 1933

Dufrenne’s suspected assailant seemed hurried and careless, and so he left a roomful of evidence, in particular fingerprints, although it’s not at all clear that the police handled any of this very thoughtfully. The press covered the case closely, and typically expressed the authorities’ belief that the murderer might not have been a sailor at all, but instead wore a costume de fantaisie, as Le Matin put it on September 26, “as we see with some of the young men at certain establishments of pleasure.” Or as Le Journal explained that same day, “common among habitués of Montmartre,” an artistic and avant-garde center of Paris, and, by implication, a sexually promiscuous section of the city. In fact, La Volonté confirmed the suspicion, informing readers that, at the time of the murder, “there were only 85 or 90 sailors on leave in Paris, and there is no reason to suspect any of them.”

Just after the murder, during the manhunt, and throughout the subsequent trial, the press emphasized Dufrenne’s homosexuality as one of the causes of the crime as well as the sign of the decline of French culture. The story made its way throughout France and even to French North Africa, with L’Echo d’Alger weighing in, in December 1933, that “there is a long way from Oscar Wilde to Oscar Dufrenne,” with the former’s “vice” having become “truly vulgar” in the lifestyle—and demise—of the latter. La Gazette de Biarritz, pandering to the far-right, suggested that “Mussolini has purified Rome” and “Chancellor Hitler has purified Berlin,” and that the Dufrenne case was the surest indication that Paris, “thanks to its weakness,” needed the same treatment. In 1935, L’Humanité referred to Dufrenne’s “monstrous disease,” while in the same year, in L’Oeuvre, a navy veteran writing about the case, and assuming that the murderer indeed had also been in the navy, asked “Is it true that most sailors are inverted?” He claimed that he himself was “tortured” by the question.

There were plenty of apparent witnesses providing tips; one insisted that he had seen the murderer run from the scene dressed as a woman. Police forces throughout Europe cooperated on the case, and in late-October, Spanish authorities apprehended a suspect in Barcelona. Paul Laborie was charged with the crime; Le Figaro labelled his past “detestable,” and said that he made his living through “prostitution and narcotics.” Newspapers determined that Laborie must be guilty, but every time he appeared in court he denied that he had anything to do with the murder. “I have never seen Monsieur Dufrenne,” he said at his inquest. “And I’ve never dressed as a sailor.”

Some witnesses had been far more certain early on, but then had some doubts at the trial. A Russian hairdresser claimed to have seen quite clearly Dufrenne picking up the sailor the night of the murder and had identified Laborie early on. Under oath, however, all he could say was that “Laborie looks strangely like him…But I don’t swear it’s him.” There was, as well, some contradictory testimony. Laborie’s brother, Mikael, insisted that both he and Paul had been at their father’s apartment the evening of the murder, but the father himself said that, really, it had been the next night, just before Paul left for Bordeaux and then Spain. Then the elder Laborie told the court what Mikael had confided to him during that visit: “Paul is capable of anything.”

Mistinguett, on the right, attends the inquest, L’Intransigeant, March 7, 1934

All of this made for sensational news, and with the various inquests and trial stretching out for over two years, the courtroom itself became a place to see and be seen. That most famous of all Parisians, the chanteuse Mistinguett, almost certainly an acquaintance of Dufrenne’s, made an appearance at one of the hearings—and in all of the French newspapers—in March 1934.

The actual trial lasted only a few days at the end of October 1935. Besides witnesses changing their stories, the case had plenty of problems for the prosecution, some of them their own doing. During their investigation, Parisian authorities had discovered the sailor suit, that costume de fantaisie, that they were certain Laborie had worn on the night of the murder. In court, in a scene that anticipates by sixty years O.J. Simpson struggling to put on the glove during his murder trial, prosecutors confidently asked Laborie to put on the sailor suit. The outfit was ridiculously small, the pants barely covering his knees, and as Le Journal reported, the jurors “could not help smiling except by biting their lips,” and had to “suppress” their laughter. After all of that, they deliberated for only twenty minutes and came back with their decision. Laborie had been acquitted.

L’Oeuvre announces the verdict, October 24, 1935

On front pages across the country, newspapers told readers the news: Paul Laborie est acquitté. No other suspect was ever arrested, and the case was never solved. Newspapers weren’t so sure, though. Most of them felt certain that Laborie was the murderer and kept saying so. At the end of the case, a reporter in Le Journal lamented that “this sad and repugnant character” had been found innocent, and then asked a question to which the answer, to him at least, seemed obvious. “Has this one escaped punishment?”

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